Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman b. 1967- d. today

Learning of his death today I instantly remembered meeting Phillip Seymour Hoffman once, in 1997 or so at the wrap party for Todd Solonz's Happiness (1998), which I had completely forgotten, being rather drunk at the time, and shortly to have my very first celebrity intervention. My crew of willowy lounge hipsters were at a bar in the East Village, Black Star, drinking to our waning health as usual and straining to seem arch and debonair and that the DJ's music wasn't hurting our hangovers from the previous evening, when the wrap party for the Happiness cast materialized like a very odd circus. A stranger lot of odd-looking geeks you couldn't imagine, not in that NYC 'pretty people' hipster bar. The super skinny bespectacled dweeb Solondz, a gigantic Mama Cass of a lady named Camryn Manheim, etc- each of them making the others more freakish considering the rest of us were all the same approx. age, height, rife with hipster elan, charisma, debonair post-debauchery disaffect, etc. One of the odd ducks was Phillip Seymour Hoffman. When we learned was an up and coming movie star, we were left incredulous. This guy? What next? Our circles were the only groups of people there--I think it was a Tuesday--so we gradually spilled into each other, my friends grilling them on their weird movie, and them all awkward except Hoffman, who easily blended into either camp and patiently explained the movie to our mild fascination. He was a regular guy, a shaggy portly ginger with no need to flaunt an ego. That was his part of his strange power - no one expected what he could deliver. After a few hours and drinks, we were all in his power. 

I mention this because the strangeness of it all clearly made an impression; this guy seemed more like a sound tech than an actor, like a technician or scholar of the craft, a character actor rather than a star, so it was no surprise to recognize him holding a boom in Boogie NightsI didn't like his character in that film, he reminded me of a joneser that used to hang on me the way he was hanging on Dirk Diggler, and didn't trust him or even like him onscreen until we rented 1999's Talented Mr. Ripley. When he teases Ripley on the boat, "How's the peepin', Tommy? How's the peepin'?" I finally got it. He stole the shit out of that movie, not easy when Jude Law was already stealing it from Matt Damon before Phillip even showed up. When I revisited Boogie Nights after that I no longer felt threatened as I had originally, feeling like he was trying to drag the hot arc of the film into Carson McCullers territory, compelling us to behold his naked redhead pale shoulders in the same frame as hunky Wahlberg, dewy-eyed Julianne Moore, great 70s dad Burt Reynolds, and voluptuous Heather Graham.

Slowly, surely, he was transcending his awkward endomorphic persona to become a titan of the big screen, a character actor becoming a major star through sheer chops and balls, the way only a few like him had done before. His hospice nurse in Magnolia (1999), eyes foggy with opiate nurturing, lighting Robards' invisible cigarette and helping that great actor confront his mortality (Robards died shortly after filming), was the slump-postured angel of compassion navigating the spastic orbit of a beautiful people dysfunctional family in order to fulfill his patients' final wish. You couldn't help but be awed by the profoundly humble compassion he exhibited. Without narcissism or egotistical grandeur to get in our way, we're all angels: Hoffman made that so clear the movie dissolved into a puddle at his feet.

I still haven't seen Capote, but he was the best thing by a landslide (as rock critic Lester Bangs) in Almost Famous, this time trying to drag that crappy under-drug-fueled film into something like real rock anarchy rather than letting it completely succumb to Crowe's clueless straight-edge pop momma's boy sober dorkiness. And if not for his few outbursts like "Pig FUCK!" and a few great sessions in the dark with the hooch in The Master, that film would have been a bore, for me at least. In short, he was such a titanic force, he could be counted on to steady nearly every roiling vessel of a film, steering shallowness towards the rocks of depth, and from maelstrom depth towards the rough but ready straits of genuine subversion energy. As his film career took off it became kind of off-putting to see him doing so well, knowing he was coming up in a film you were about to see was intimidating, scary, but ultimately gratifying, like getting Tolstoy wrapped up in your McDonalds.

Like so many OD-ed icons, one wonders if the rehab had lowered his tolerance to the dose he was used to; I presume that killed him. Heroin is deadly that way, I hear, like a book where you die if you accidentally open to the wrong page. The year of that wrap party was the year I was struggling with the booze, it was killing me even as I was proclaiming I didn't have an addictive personality. I actually was believing that. My crew and I all felt that way and put out feelers for heroin with boozed-up curiosity. Maybe that's the trouble with being artistic and into drugs, you can usually justify your usage by turning out art while high because it seems like a masterpiece, and it's fun. Making sober art is painful. He was my current age when he died, 46, the same age Kurt Cobain: we were all born 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, a high point in transformative drug culture. LSD and weed flipped the world's script. The 70s began with we kids having open-minded permissive parents, love was all around; we'd been watching the world's beauty dwindle ever since. The watering holes dried up and the thriving insect life died out from DDT. "Just Say No" and 80s greed and AIDS and death polished off the rest of the smiley face buttons. No wonder we're so discontent that we need to either be high or holding tight to our newly won sobriety like a life raft.

Black Star has been closed now for 10 years at least, and whatever bar opened in its space also long closed, I'm sure, to be replace probably by a Chase or Citibank. New York City may yet return to a place where art can thrive, but it will have to do it without this sweet Falstaff-Harry hybrid prince of actors, this exhibit A of the power of spirit and devotion to resonant craft to always trump size, shape, and pigmentation. Cinema didn't even know it needed him, but once it got a taste it needed more and more, and now it will need its own rehab counseling to come to terms with today's great loss.

And it won't get it.


  1. My own speculation as what happened went the same direction as yours: Heroin users who try and ultimately fail to get clean can end up overdosing on an amount that used to be their usual dose.

    Artists of all kinds seem to have one hell of a hard time during their forties. A lot of my favorite singers have sort of sat that decade out entirely.

    Maybe the drug thing comes back to bite you hard when you start to feel your own mortality.

    This one's a loss...

  2. This blows. Heroin is some kind of terrible -- a demon that can just fuck off back to wherever it came from, for all I care. PSH ("Fish", I’d like to think would’ve been a cool nickname for him) was arguably one of our finest contemporary thespians. In terms of screen persona, he was like an inert force; paradoxical, I know, but it’s the only way I can describe the guy’s unique presence.

    The way he delivered his character’s sermon on the evils of gossip in Doubt was but one example of his ability to steadily summon a ball of fire from deep within his gut. Or the way he blazed through the desert on his motorcycle in The Master he was nothing less than Commander of the World.

    Good actor. Adios.

  3. I first saw him in Twister. I know, not the classiest movie in the world, but I still think of him asking for food. I was surprised by him every time I saw him in another movie, and that's the best thing I can say for an actor. I'll miss him on some level in all the movies he won't now make. Goodbye, and rest well.

  4. Come to think of it, that's where I first saw him too!


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